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Establishing a national school food program in Canada

Canada is the only G7 country without a nationally harmonized school food program, lagging most of the world’s wealthiest nations in providing universal access to healthy meals and snacks at school.

This is a critical gap, felt more strongly in a time of skyrocketing grocery bills, high inflation, and stressed family budgets. By establishing a national school food program, Canada would take steps to ensure children across the country can obtain the healthy food they need to succeed in the classroom and in their communities.

A healthy diet is important for everyone, and especially crucial for children. School nutrition programs also have far-reaching benefits. Countries with a national school food program have documented better academic performance, improved short- and long-term health for children, help for family budgets, and improved efficiency in the healthcare system.

By integrating nutrition education into established curricula, a national school food program would also encourage children to adopt lifelong healthy eating habits. It is time for Canada to catch up to its peers in the G7 and establish a universal, comprehensive and culturally appropriate National School Food Program in collaboration with local communities, provinces, territories and Indigenous leaders.

What is a National School Food Program?

Ideally, a National School Food Program would provide universal access to nutritious food at school for children from junior kindergarten to Grade 12. It could also integrate nutrition education into existing curriculum and be supported by hands-on learning that help students develop healthy culinary and food literacy skills. A national school food program would be cost-shared between the ministries in the federal government, the provinces, territories, local communities and developed in consultation with Indigenous peoples.

By creating a program that is accessible to all students, a national school food program would reduce stigma, fund a quality physical infrastructure and employ qualified staff. Individual communities should retain autonomy, utilizing federal funding to deliver culturally appropriate nutritious food and (where possible) culinary instruction.

What are the benefits of a National School Food Program?

Research conducted by Arrell Scholar alumna Dr. Amberley Ruetz is presented in a recent report on the economic benefits of a national school food program. Using results from countries similar to Canada, research shows that a national school food program could:

  • Save families up to $189 per child per month on grocery bills – a savings of between $2,580 to $3,780 per year for a family with two children.
  • Contribute $4.8 billion to local economies through domestic food purchases over 10 years.
  • Increase the lifetime earnings of students by up to 5.8%.
  • Increase mothers’ labour market participation by 5%.

Overall, research suggests that the economic return of school food programs is between 2.5x-7x of their cost in human health and economic benefits. See the toolbar below to better understand the variety of benefits a school food program would provide.

Update: View Amberley’s newest report, drawing a spotlight on innovative Canadian school food programs from each province.








Visuals created by Alexandra Sawatzky, PhD, Creative Advisor at Arrell Food Institute. Based on discussions shared at the “Conversations about School Food” webinar hosted by AFI, information from the Coalition for Healthy School Food, and research by Amberley Ruetz, PhD

Download the visuals
Download the visuals

Where do we stand on a National School Food Program?

Update: Government of Canada Invests in a National School Food Program

Canada’s federal government committed to establish a national school food program in its 2019 budget – but as of today, there isn’t federal funding to implement.

Despite this gap, a large grassroots community is actively working to support school food across the country. For example, in August 2023, the NGO Coalition for Healthy School Food asked the federal government to allocate $1 billion over five years to establish a National School Food Program. This federal funding will complement existing provincial initiatives, providing much-needed stability and universal coverage, and allowing schools to invest in infrastructure and people to support program delivery.

This investment, coupled with other family-focused support such as the Dental Benefit, Grocery Rebate, Canada Child Benefit and reduced cost of daycare will form part of a comprehensive suite of programs from the federal government that benefit all Canadians, particularly those communities most at risk.

In the long run, Canadians would save billions of dollars a year by adopting more healthy eating habits and realize numerous long-term benefits. We believe that our country should join our G7 partners and other wealthy nations who already provide children with universal, comprehensive and culturally appropriate access to healthy food at school.